The Hijacking of Organic Agriculture…and how USDA is facilitating the theft.


International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)
Ecology and farming May-August 2000
By: Frederick Kirschenmann

We challenge this romantic, idealistic definition of organic farming . . .
While we concede that such 'holistic' farms probably do exist . . .
it is clear that they are the rare exception and certainly not a basis for either
definition or for standards setting. Kahn, Weakley and Harper

The industrial mind-set represented above is from three organic
practitioners. It indicates just how pervasively industrialization has
crept into the organic movement.

At a conference, entitled 'Organic Agriculture Faces the Specialization
of Production Systems', held in France in December, 1999, John Ikerd
from the University of Missouri, USA, argued that 'recent trends are
transforming organic foods into just another industrialized food system.'
He predicted that the 'demands for consistency and uniformity of product
quality and for dependability and timeliness of delivery' will force producers
to 'standardize, specialize and centralize control of production and distribution
processes.' And that, in order to ' meet the needs of a large-scale, mass
distribution' food system, organic production systems will have to specialize
and become large-scale, mass distribution' food system, organic production
systems will have to specialize and become large-scale operations.

In 1997 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set about to support
the trend to industrialization. It proposed a set of rules to establish the national
standard for organic production and processing. The proposal included
sewage sludge, GMOs and ionized radiation as potentially acceptable
inputs. The use of sewage sludge would have assisted large-scale operations
in the procurement of the necessary nutrients without establishing closed
nutrient cycling systems. GMO's would have facilitated pest control of large
operations. And ionized radiation would have enabled the organic industry
to use the same mass processing and distribution techniques that characterize
the conventional food system.

There was an unprecedented outpouring of public comments that forced the
USDA to withdraw its proposed rule and rewrite it. The new rule, released
in March 2000, prohibits the use of GMO's, sewage sludge and ionized
radiation. And while the new rule is a vast improvement over the 1997 version,
it still promotes the industrialization of organic agriculture in at least two important
respects.

First, the new rule still insists that the national standard is both a floor and a
ceiling. Not only will all US produce using the organic label have to certify
that they meet all of the requirements of the standard (the floor), they will
also not be permitted to certify to a more restrictive standard (the ceiling).
No other government or private organic standard-setting or accreditation
body in the world establishes such a homogeneous standard. Second, the
new rule still does not provide a satisfactory solution to the high cost of
certification and accreditation for the small farmer and the small certifier.

Creating such an undeviating standard plays fully into the hands of the
largest industrial operators. Those firms with the deepest pockets can
capture market share through price-cutting and market advertising, options
not available to smaller less capitalized enterprises. So if smaller firms and
farms are not allowed to exercise their competitive advantage - differentiating
themselves in the marketplace through practicing superior ecological field
operations and having such practices certified so that consumers can support
such practices with their shopping dollars - they will be forced out.

The industrialization of organic agriculture is especially ironic since the organic
movement emerged largely as a reaction to the industrialization. Sir Albert
Howard, for example, felt that organic farming would help us learn 'how to
subordinate the profit motive to the sacred duty of handing over unimpaired to
the next generation the heritage of a fertile soil' (Howard 1943). Rudolph Steiner
was even more direct. Industrial agriculture, he observed, was based on a
'materialistic' science that only concerned itself with 'very small spheres of
activity.' It was impossible, he argued, to properly assess the world of inter-
dependent organisms from such a narrow perspective. (Steiner, 1924). But
today's industrially-minded organic practitioners consider such holistic perspectives
to be 'romantic' and 'idealistic.' (Kahn, Weakley and Harper, 1999)

The tragedy of this hijacking of the original organic vision is two-fold. First,
it will eliminate the small organic farmers, certifiers and processors - the very
segment of the food and agriculture system that crafted organic agriculture.
Second, it will provide no incentive for farmers or manufacturers to continually
improve the art of organic farming and processing. The result will be that we
will never achieve the goals originally envisioned by the founders of the organic
movement.

Charting a new path for organic agriculture

All of this is not to denigrate the industrialization of organic agriculture.
Certainly, providing an incentive for large farmers to move away from
toxic inputs and substitute them with more environmentally-benign ones
has the potential to benefit both the environment and human health.
But we are losing something vital in the process. We lose the ecological
wisdom of the farmers who live close to the land, listen to the land, and
consider themselves a member of the land community. We also lose the
opportunity to eat more wholesome, less processed foods.

Organic agriculture was based on the notion that it is people who care
for the land, people who live close enough to the land to know how to
care for it in their own ecological neighborhoods, that are the vital ingredients
to ecological health. Industrial-based organic agriculture considers such
human/community dimensions of organic agriculture 'romantic.'

If the exodus of small farmers, certifiers and processors from the organic
movement is to be prevented in the USA, and if the ecological wisdom
that has characterized the organic food and farming system for the past
half century is to be preserved, there are two things that must be
accomplished.

First, USDA must be made to recognize the profound implications of
establishing a single homogeneous, industrial standard. It has to be urged
to re-craft the standard to allow farmers, manufacturers and certifiers to
differentiate themselves from the mass-produced organic food system in
the marketplace. Practitioners must be allowed to raise their organic standards
through superior, ecological, on-farm practices as well as to pursue other
social and ecological goals. And, by being certified to those enhanced standards,
they must be able to be recognized in the marketplace for doing so.

To accomplish this, USDA must redraft the proposal so that private
certifiers can reserve the use of their seal or logo to designate ecological
and social practices which exceed those required by the national standard.
Making organic standards receptive to such broad-based, continually
evolving practices provides farmers and manufacturers with one of the few
opportunities to commit themselves to sustainable practices and be recognized
in the marketplace in a credible way for doing so, Consumers must be given the
opportunity to identify and purchase the products from such enterprises.

This is not to claim that the product from such operations is 'more organic'
than those produced by industrial methods. But it is to claim that the
production methods of such enterprises are superior from the perspective
of organic agriculture. A farm that has closed nutrient cycles, thereby
building the organic matter in its soils without waste, and a farm that uses
natural systems for pest management thereby making pest management
largely self-regulating, and a farm that captures solar energy, is superior to
a farm that uses input substitution for fertility and natural (as opposed
to synthetic) pesticides to control pests. To suggest that elegant ecological
systems are not more organic than input substitution systems, is to miss the
whole point of organic agriculture.

Re-crafting the rule to make the national standard a base standard, rather
than a floor and a ceiling standard, will provide the organic industry with
two distinct opportunities to compete in the marketplace. Large, industrial
enterprises can compete by meeting the base standard, cutting prices and
marketing their products through advertising. Smaller enterprises could
compete by differentiating themselves in the marketplace, subscribing to
enhanced ecological and social standards that exceed the base national
standard, filling niche markets, and marketing more directly to consumers.

If organic farmers are given the opportunity to differentiate themselves in
this manner, they have the opportunity to not only survive, but thrive. As
Ikerd put it, 'Organic farmers can join with other small farmers in developing
an alternative food system that can coexist with, and someday displace, the
global industrial food system.'

Such a two-track approach would not inhibit international trade. Trade
would be conducted on the base national standard. Electing to become
certified for enhanced niche markets would be entirely voluntary, and could
not be used as a trade restriction. It is only the manufacturers and distributors
who voluntarily elect to exercise the differentiated market option (presumably
to gain a market advantage) that would be limited in the sourcing of their
ingredients from production systems that adhere to the enhanced standard.

The second task that must be achieved if the ecological wisdom of organic
farming is to be preserved is that a community-based organic food system,
which can parallel the industrial-based organic food system, must be crafted.
Bioregionalism and community foodsheds were a part of the original vision of
organic agriculture. Currently, most organic farmers in the US are still small.
According to a 1998 Organic Farming Research Foundation survey, 87% of
US organic farms are single-family operations or family partnerships and the
average size of an organic farm is 140 acres. Many of these farms sell their
production directly to their customers.

The community-based organic agriculture that has emerged in the organic
movement will thrive, whether it can legally use the word organic or not.
The people - both producers and consumers - in community based organic
food systems will not give up what they have found. Healthy, delicious, whole,
organically-produced food; the reliability of knowing the farmer who grows the
food and the small processor who processes it; the ability to be physically present
where the food is grown and processed. While this movement will thrive without
the blessing of the national organic standard, it is a vital part of the organic industry.
The organic movement stands to lose much more than the farmers and eaters who
are part of such community-based food systems if they are not included in the
organic arena.

It is far from impossible to revisit the rule - and if need be the Organic Foods
Production Act of 1990 - to expand its scope so that it provides for community-
based organic food and agriculture systems. The people involved in these
systems have given a lot of thought about how they want to market their
production, how they can ensure their customers that their labels have integrity,
and how they can identify the ecological and social criteria that constitute a
sustainable community food system. If they are invited into the dialogue the
rule could be redrafted to accommodate their needs and the needs of small farmers,
certifiers and processors.

Information on the references made above is available from the author.

Frederick Kirschenmann is the President and part owner of Kirschenmann
Family Farms. He can be contacted at Farm Verified Organic, 5449 45th St. SE,
Medina, ND 58467 USA. Tel: 1-701-486-3578; Fax: 1-701-486-3580.
email: farmvo@daktel.com

Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Donate | About Us | Contact Us

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.